Jobs, justice, preserving democracy key themes of the March on Washington
The Rev. Al Sharpton, second from right, joins Martin Luther King III, third from right, his wife Arndrea Waters King, and their daughter Yolanda King as they march to honor the 60th Anniversary of the March on Washington, Aug. 26, 2023, in Washington. | Jacquelyn Martin / AP

WASHINGTON—For Tonya Jackson, a Maximus call center worker from the Deep South, the point of the Martin Luther King, Jr., “continuation” march in D.C. is a decent job that pays enough to raise her family—and the right to unionize to get it.

“We’re here to represent thousands of Maximus workers” who toil at its call center helping people seeking Medicaid and Affordable Care Act coverage, Jackson told a large crowd of Communications Workers before the contingent, including Maximus workers, set out to march.

In turn, the red-shirted CWA members were one of the largest union delegations at the August 26 march. Other participating unions included Service Employees 1199, both teachers unions, the United Food and Commercial Workers, AFSCME, the Auto Workers, and the Steelworkers.

The original 1963 March on Washington was for “Jobs and Justice.” Those were top points of this march, too. But so was politics.

So the Maximus workers, most of them Black, marched for economic as well as political equality. Jackson personalized it. So did others interviewed.

“I have three kids and two siblings, and it’s not possible to support a family” on the skimpy sums Maximus pays, Jackson explained. “They tell me I make too much money, but we shouldn’t have to live like Maximus forces us to live. We formed a union so we can be paid a living wage.”

Atiba McIntosh, a Baltimore Metropolitan Transit Authority bus mechanic and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300 member, took back to his colleagues the goal of “better-paying jobs both within union” shops “and beyond unions.

A few of the many speakers at Saturday’s March on Washington, starting top left: AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler; Kelley Robinson, President of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ organization; UnidosUS President Janet Murguia, holding a sign that translates: ‘Your struggle is my struggle’; John Yang, President and Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice; Larry Wright, Jr., Executive Director of National Congress of American Indians; and Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, President of National Nurses United. | AP photos

“We need a way for people to live their lives a little more comfortably,” McIntosh continued. “It’s all about equal rights for workers, better Social Security, and better pensions.”

That same theme ran through speeches and interviews during this year’s march, which attracted tens of thousands of people to the Lincoln Memorial to listen to speakers ranging from AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler to Dr. King’s son, Martin Luther King III, to the Rev. Al Sharpton.

“This is not a commemoration, but a continuation,” Shuler told the crowd. “We are fighting against a system that says Black women earn 64 cents for every dollar a white man makes. We are fighting against a system that deprives us” of the right to vote.

Economics and politics and the tie between the two—and labor’s fight for equality in both—is what the original March on Washington was all about, said Brandon Mancilla, the new and young director of Auto Workers Region 9A, which covers New York and Connecticut.

UAW was a key financial and emotional backer of the original march, and Mancilla noted Dr. King “wrote his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech in Solidarity House,” UAW headquarters. “There won’t be racial justice without economic justice. And there won’t be economic justice without a strong labor movement,” he added.

“At the end of the day, we are all equal,” mused James Johnson, of Steelworkers Local 8888 in the big naval shipyards of Newport News, Va. “But we still got a long way to go to achieve that.”

Barriers to equality go beyond skin color, as pervasive as that is, said Vivian Chang, an Office and Professional Employees Local 2 member and a staffer for the Asian-Pacific American Labor Alliance, an AFL-CIO constituency group.

“There are a lot of language barriers,” some of which reject people’s right to vote, Chang explained. “State governments don’t respect that.”

Politics intruded, too, in references to far-right wingers throwing barriers, or worse, in the way of economic progress, the right to vote, and workers’ rights, especially imposed on people of color and others who are “different.”

Chang’s example was her mother, in Georgia, showing the barriers red states have erected to voting. Her mother was thrown off the rolls not because of language but because her signature now doesn’t match the one she used when initially registering. It’s missing a hyphen.

Using a missing hyphen to disqualify a voter of color, however, is only a symptom of the white nationalist reaction the country confronts.

“I’m very concerned about the direction our country is going in,” King III told the crowd on the Mall. “It is because instead of moving forward, it feels as if we’re moving backward.

“The question is what are we gonna do?… Re-present history in the right way? Insure that hatred and hostility is not espoused all over our nation?

“We need us all to be engaged. Dad would say now is the time to preserve protect and defend democracy. We must ensure voting rights are preserved for all people. We must ensure our women and children are treated fairly. We must end gun violence.

“Then maybe one day we will be a great nation. We’re not personifying greatness right now.”

Sharpton was even more pointed, urging marchers to lead a mass movement to overwhelm the white nationalists by sheer numbers. The marchers, he said, must include people of color, other minorities, Jews, LGBTQ people, women who have lost abortion rights or face losing them, and all other foes and/or victims of white racism and nationalism.

“They will not be able to turn back the clock,” Sharpton declared of those enemies. “They want to stop Blacks from voting, we’re gonna vote anyhow. No matter how hard you make it, we’re coming anyhow,” he warned.

“They’re gonna try to put women back in the kitchen with an apron. We’re not going back in the kitchen and we’re not putting that apron back on. They tell gays, ‘Go back in the closet.’ We’re not going back in the closet. We’re gonna lock the closet.”

“We’re gonna stand up for who we are and what we are and where we are. Our fathers fought for this and we’re gonna maintain it,” said Sharpton, whose National Action Network co-organized the march with King III’s Drum Major Institute.

And some of  “the continuation’s” racist foes some face another fate, in the legal realm, said Sharpton. He called the racists “schemers” against civil rights and voting rights.

“The Dreamers” Dr. King prophesied about in 1963 “are in Washington, D.C.,” at this march, Sharpton declared. “The ‘schemers’ are being booked in Atlanta, in the Fulton County Jail.”

Eric Brooks was in Washington on Saturday marching with the Communist Party USA. He is co-convener of that organization’s African American Equality Commission.

“The CPUSA was proud to join with the spirited multi-generational, Black, brown, Asian, and white participants at the 60th Anniversary March on Washington,” Brooks told People’s World. “We join with the participants and speakers from the podium who said the time is now to counter the actions of an anti-people, anti-labor, racist Supreme Court and of Governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis. ”

The sentiment among speakers and participants emphasized that the time is now to build a large people’s movement, especially as the 2024 elections near and the need to stop Trump becomes all too apparent. Brooks agreed and said the wide number of communities united on the stage was a symbol of what’s needed: a multiracial coalition that includes African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Jews, Christians, LGBTQ people, Native Americans, and more.
“The Communist Party,” Brooks said, “joins in welcoming that movement and its demands and further struggles to end the militarization of our schools and to redirect the bloated U.S. military budget to meet people’s needs.” He said that the party looks forward to working in coalition with the organizers and participants of the event and others “to strengthen and expand the movement that the march so effectively embodied.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.